Film History Versus Academic History

Many academic historians argue that filmmakers should leave history alone. Their arguments go beyond the individual case to an overall critique of the genre. Real historians, they say, are interested in accuracy, filmmakers in entertainment. Television producers, they add, are concerned only with gimmicks and show business personalities to introduce the programs. In the end, they conclude, documentaries like Alistair Cooke's America and The British Empire are myopic garbage put out by blinkered, unlearned journalists, presenting ideological views with which few historians would agree.

Strong stuff! So what can one say?

Of course, there are bad and stupid historical documentaries, just as there are had books on history. But there are very good ones as well. And yes, filmmakers do want to entertain (as well as enlighten), but this aim is not incompatible with historical accuracy.

Most documentary producers work with a historical adviser. I admit that advisers are sometimes used simply as window dressing to get the blessing of the NEA or NEH, but they do have a number of serious functions to perform and can be of inestimable help to the filmmaker. Donald Watt, himself a historian, suggests the following ways that the adviser can contribute to the film.

1. The adviser should see that the subject is completely covered within the limits set by the length of the program and the material.

2. The view presented of the subject must be objective within the acceptable definition of the term as used and understood by professional historians. It must not be parti pris, anachronistic, ideological, or slanted for the purpose of propaganda.

3. The events described, the "facts" outlined, must be accurate, that is, in accordance with the present state of historical knowledge. Hypothesis and inference are all legitimate, but only if they are presented as being exactly that. (Donald Watt, "History on the Public Screen," in New Challenges for Documentary, ed. Alan Rosenthal [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988])

Ideally, the relationship of the filmmaker and the adviser is one of partnership. But in the end, one person has to decide on the nature of the program, and I see that person as the filmmaker. You ignore the historian at your peril.

Part of the disquiet of historians is that they really don't understand the difference between academic and television history. They don't understand what the filmmaker is trying to do and the limits within which we work. Our goals and our framework can, however, be stated fairly simply:

1. We are making television programs, not writing articles for learned journals, but we still want accuracy.

2. We are working for a mass audience that is composed of both the aged and the young; the Ph.D. and the person who left school at age fourteen; the expert and the ignorant.

3. We have to grab the audience. If they don't like what we show, they will turn elsewhere. Unlike students, they are not necessarily predisposed to what we want to show. We want to entertain, but we also want to inform the audience.

4. We cannot reflect; we cannot go back. We are unsure of the audience's knowledge of the subject. Some will know everything; others will know nothing. We have to be clear, concise, and probably limited in our scope.

5. Finally, our intent is to present a view of history, not the definitive view of history.

Although I have covered many of these points earlier, they are worth reiterating because these issues go to the heart of the making of historical documentaries. Clearly, the writer-director who wants to do a decent historical film faces a great many problems. Some of these are discussed below; where possible, I have tried to suggest a solution.

Film Making

Film Making

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